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Olympus' compact E-P1: A breath of fresh air

The price is high for Olympus' first Micro Four Thirds camera, but the hybrid camera design holds promise for the industry.

The Olympus E-P1 with its small 17mm lens attached.
The Olympus E-P1 with its small 17mm lens attached.

The Olympus E-P1 camera, a hybrid designed to combine advantages of both compact cameras and SLRs, is a welcome arrival in a digital camera market struggling to find new directions.

The small and light camera that debuted Tuesday features interchangeable lenses and relatively large sensor that endow SLRs with flexibility and higher image quality, but it's also got a small body of a compact camera. It has the potential to appeal to SLR owners who want something smaller and to compact camera owners who want something better, if Olympus can convince people to surmount a significant obstacle, price.

Like most hybrids--gaming laptops, for example, or bicycles with aspects of both road bikes and mountain bikes--the E-P1 sacrifices specialization for versatility. But the digital camera market is saturated, and the E-P1 is a promising member of a newer camera breed.

There are a handful of competitors with similar aspirations. Canon's G10, the newest in its G series of high-end compact cameras, is one example. Nikon's GPS-enabled P6000 is another, though, like the G10, it doesn't have an interchangeable lens. And Panasonic's G1 and GH1, which employ the same Micro Four Thirds lens and sensor standard as the E-P1, are probably closest.

The biggest knock against these cameras is price. Their relatively large sensors--especially those in the Micro Four Thirds cameras--cost a lot to manufacture, and fast electronics and high complexity just make things worse. Few people are willing to spend more than $300 on a camera, much less the hybrid cameras.

Brace yourself for some sticker shock. The Nikon P6000 costs about $400, the Canon G10 about $450, the Panasonic G1 $640, and the Panasonic GH1--which adds video abilities to the G1--a whopping $1,500. Olympus is in the middle: the E-P1 costs $750 for the body alone, $800 with a 14-42mm lens, and $900 with the appealingly flat 17mm "pancake" lens.

Olympus has a long history with compact cameras. Modern Photography's advice column in August 1973 recommended holding on to Olympus Pen cameras.
Olympus has a long history with compact cameras. Modern Photography's advice column in August 1973 recommended holding on to Olympus Pen cameras.

Micro Four Thirds
The E-P1 is the first from Olympus that uses the Micro Four Thirds standard, a variation on the Four Thirds standard that governs sensors and lenses on Olympus' SLR cameras; the Panasonic G1 and GH1 were the first Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market. Micro Four Thirds employs smaller lenses than SLRs, and because there's no internal SLR mirror to direct light to a viewfinder and dedicated autofocus system, the camera body is more compact.

Existing Olympus SLR users will probably have more of an affinity for Micro Four Thirds cameras because their lenses can be used on the smaller cameras with an adapter. However, that means more bulk compared to Micro Four Thirds' lenses.

Olympus is touting its long history as a camera maker with the E-P1. The camera's design is deliberately reminiscent of the Olympus Pen, a compact camera introduced 50 years ago that took photos on half frames of 35mm film, and the Pen F from 1963, which added interchangeable lenses.

It's probably a smart move to try to cater to film camera nostalgia buffs. Those with a longer history in photography are more likely to appreciate what the E-P1 has to offer--and to be able to afford it. And when going head-to-head with electronics companies such as Sony that have entered the camera market, it's smart to press any advantage you can.

Fundamentally, the E-P1--and its successors--will sink or swim depending on how well it works, though. Here, it's got some strong assets.

First and foremost is that large sensor. Olympus' Four Thirds sensor is smaller than those in market-leading Nikon and Canon SLRs, but compared to compact cameras, it's spacious. That gives advantages in low-light performance and handling a broader bright-to-dark range.

Olympus is likes the retro look with the E-P1.
Olympus is likes the retro look with the E-P1. Olympus

Next is the selection of lenses. The E-P1 with two or three lenses would make a nice versatile camera for your round-the-world tour or other occasions where space and weight are at a premium.

Unfortunately, the small-lens advantage diminishes toward the telephoto end of the spectrum, so don't expect the remarkably svelte 17mm or reasonably compact 14-42mm to be the model when you move to something in the 50-200mm range (100-400mm in 35mm equivalent terms) for your safari trip.

Olympus plans to release an ultrazoom in 2010 that will probably be a reasonable choice if you want just single lens. I'm not an ultrazoom fan, given the compromises in optical quality necessary to reach the big zoom range, but I recognize I have more patience for switching lenses than most folks, and an ultrazoom is better for shooting video.

One of my worries with the E-P1 was with autofocus, since it lacks SLRs' snappy phase-detect systems. But in my brief test with the camera, focus was reasonable--and I quite like the instant 5X magnification mode for manual focusing.

The camera has some missing pieces, though. There's no built-in flash, which is handy for filling in those sunset shots, and there's no viewfinder, though the 17mm lens comes with one that perches in the flash hot-shoe.

Overall, I like Olympus' pared-down approach better than Panasonic's bulked-up Micro Four Thirds philosophy. Either way, though, the trend bodes well.

If the companies can rein in their prices while fleshing out the lens selection, their hybrid design could find a sweet new spot in the camera market.